Great morning everyone I’m on the blog tour for The Thirty-Five Timely & Untimely Deaths Of Cumberland County by Mason Ball today and I have a great extract to share with you.
This book is available in ebook and paperback now, the ebook is currently only £1.49. You can purchase a copy of both here.
Before I share my extract with you here is a little bit about the book.
The dying years of the great depression; John Bischoffberger is a Pennsylvanian doctor adrift in Naples, Maine, struggling with his loss of religious faith and retreating from painful memories of The Great War. As Medical Examiner John must document deaths that occur under unusual or suspicious circumstances. Yet as he goes about his work, he begins to suspect that the deaths he is called upon to deal with are in fact far from routine. He becomes convinced that three itinerants are going about the county, killing. An old woman, a little girl, and a thin man are fulfilling some strange and unspoken duty, brutally murdering men, women and children; and the deaths seem to be drawing closer to John: others who may suspect foul play, then acquaintances of his, then perhaps friends, even family members. As the storm clouds of a new world war gather in Europe, and John’s rationality slowly unravels, he must find a way to disprove what he has reluctantly come to believe, or to confirm his worst fears and take steps to end the killing spree of the three in the woods, whatever the cost.
Wilfred York reaches out over the water, flame-haired and straining for the raft, only the thinnest branch anchoring him to the shore. The other boys watch as he stretches himself
above his own reflection, both Wilfreds biting their lower lips, no doubt damning their own meager twelve years and the stunted boyish limbs that refuse to do the job. His fingers brush lightly at the wooden planks but serve only to push the raft further out into the brook.
He curses loudly. The other boys giggle, one suggests the climbing of trees, another pooh sticks, a third that they should go throw stones at his sister and her friends. Wilfred throws the three his best glare. “But we can’t reach it,” says the tree climber.
“Can’t be nomoren up to my chest,” says Wilfred. The stone thrower whines that he’s hungry. While they squabble the raft continues to skate, slow and frictionless, across the brook’s surface and away from them.
Upstream a stretch, unseen among the trees, the old woman turns to the little girl, her face as stone, forefinger near jousting with the girl’s nose.
“Now you stay right here like we agreed and don’t you go messin around on me. Right
here, you hear?”
The girl smiles puckishly.
“Here hear,” she mimics, “herehearhere.”
The old woman slaps the girl hard across the face; the girl swallows a yelp, falling against a tree, holding her cheek. The old woman’s hand becomes a finger again.
“What did I say? What did I say? Don’t play your fool games with me. You think I’m afraid of you? I don’t care what your name is, you aint nearly too old for a whuppin. What did I say?” The girl’s eyes seethe, her swollen mouth all teeth and bitter spittle, all but snarling.
“I’ll kill you,” she says quietly.
“What do you want, little girl?”
A hardness settles on miniature features.
“To burn the world down,” she spits. There is a moment before she thaws, adding, “All I want is to watch. Herehear’s fine.”
The old woman holds the girl’s gaze a moment longer, as if to fasten her to the spot, then turns and makes for the brook.
Wilfred spits, steels himself, then marches in, shoes and all; the warm water soon swallows his knees, then his waist. The shock of the cold at the bottom, more biting the further in he wades, catches the breath in his throat. It seems impossible that the sun hasn’t
been able to reach that deep. Water creeps to his shoulders and he’s dancing tiptoe across the brook bed, ankles frozen where they leave his shoes. He is gripped with the sudden need to pee.
The stone thrower throws a stone that narrowly misses him, splashing his face. The boys try to hide their laughter. Wilfred pirouettes awkwardly, the brook lapping at his chin, his
voice strained through a tight jaw.
“Do— do that again an— an you’ll re—” a breath, “gret it.” A mouth of brook water makes him choke for a moment, cough.
Lifting up the skirt of her dress the old woman steps, with barely a ripple, into the water.
Each considered footstep sees her deeper and deeper until, shoulders submerged, face austere and resolute, she dips her head and is gone, now little more than a gray shape; the sun
reflecting off the surface, a trick of the light, perhaps the side of a striped bass. The little girl watches avidly from behind her tree, absentmindedly tonguing her bloodied lip.
The old woman’s thin arms propel her along the dimness of the brook bed, hands grasping at rocks, claws in the mud, her white hair alive. That torn, empty kettle sound; the swirl of sediment, the reaching weeds. Above her, two small shoes kicking at the nothing. Anchoring her bare feet among a tangle of roots, the old woman reaches up into the warmer water, takes a firm hold on the boy’s trouser cuffs and pulls. Wilfred stiffens, sliding down through the silvered surface, his neck arching to steal a last instant in the world before he goes under. His young face is screwed into a fist, nostrils spewing bubbles as they fill. His arms are paddling uselessly, hands spread, eyes shut tight. His legs kick out, shoes impacting on her shoulders, her cheek, her chin, and for a moment he breaks free, piercing the surface; she can hear his raw intake of breath, dulled by the weight of the water, his exclamation, his panic.
The other boys’ voices call out from another world. She takes hold anew and draws him under again. He kicks, but weaker now, robbed of something, diluted. The old woman grabs his waist and pulls him to her, down into the cold, like a mother quelling an unnecessary tantrum. He’s making a high, dulled screaming sound from deep inside his body. He tears uselessly at her grip, which only tightens. His fingers feel hers; a second of identification and
a kind of understanding. His eyes open and he and the old woman look at one another. The old woman does not smile. His mouth opens, a scream that doesn’t quite fulfill its own criteria, rendered almost comical because of this, and the remaining air tumbles out of him
towards the surface. She feels his body lose buoyancy as his lungs fill, his features distorting with the pain of
it; a warm stream of urine dissipates against her thigh. The old woman embraces him, holding him tightly for as long as is necessary.
John looked down at the freckled boy; the freckled boy for his part seemed to look back, albeit without seeing. The brook whispered at the bank, slow moving, flashing in the sun, faceless, seeming to deny its complicity in the event. He crouched beside the body, making his notes. Behind a tree stood Will Walker, looking at his shoes, unable to stand still; it was clear that he wanted to be anywhere but where he stood.
“You okay, Will?”
“I’m fine, Bisch, I’m okay.” There was a weariness in his answer that John had heard before. Death did strange things, particularly when the young were concerned, bled something out of you that it took time to replace, or to ignore the loss of. It had been a
profound disappointment when, years ago, John had learned that far from being unswayed by such things, doctors merely learned how to swallow them, perhaps to mend a little quicker.
John didn’t recognize the boy, in all likelihood had never treated him, and for that at least he was grateful.
“You say you knew the boy?”
“I did. Known the Yorks some fifteen year. Terrible thing.” A breathlessness in him.
“You can wait up with the deputy you know, Will.”
“I know it. Just don’t seem right. Leavin him.”
“He’ll be fine with me, Will. Elmer’s gonna want to talk to you anyway.” Will took a
breath, narrowed his eyes. “Honest, Will, you go on. He’ll be fine. I promise.” Will gave a humourless smile of thanks.
“Well if you think I should, Bisch. I’ll be honest I don’t feel real good.”
Up through the trees by the road, three boys were staring through the deputy as he asked them questions; shivering, distracted and bloodshot, their attention instead focused on the slivers they could still see through the trees of the pale boy on the bank.
Alone again, John finished his notes and stood, kicking out his stiffened knees. He looked at the boy’s body one last time, lips pursed, nodding slowly, though for what purpose he couldn’t have said.
He thought back on his words to Cora Gottam: The earth does what it wants. He wasted a moment wondering on the truth of this. Some two hundred or so yards away, through the trees on the opposite bank, a small figure moved and for a brief moment John imagined it to be the boy, Wilfred York, having become somehow separated from his body, now making his way back to tell the doctor he was sorry for the trouble but it was fine, he’d found his way and could be alive again; just slip back into
place and everything would go on as before. John blinked. It was a little girl, skipping, dirty and frayed looking, grimy legs, hair uncombed straw. Another figure. The old woman from
the Portland Road, walking beside the girl, both dissolving gradually into the woods. They made a strange family, he thought, perhaps forged merely of a
shared poverty, perhaps blood. Did the old woman glance back at him? He couldn’t be sure.
As the pair finally vanished, he caught a glimpse of the old woman taking the little girl’s hand, or perhaps vice versa. It was a gesture that should have been touching but for some reason he saw it as anything but.
He wondered if one were leading the other, or whether in fact they were merely holding hands so as not to be alone. Joined in this way, they disappeared between the trunks.
A breeze picked up over the brook, the sun slid behind a cloud, casting shapes onto the earth. Up by the road, one of the boys was crying. At John’s feet, Wilfred York was still as dead as anyone had ever been.
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